Colorado Rubber

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Centennial’s Nelson makes standout ’21-22 season with T-Birds turn into NAHL opportunity with Wilderness


Even though Payton Nelson was born in the Chicago area and began his hockey journey there, some of his formative years have been spent in Colorado playing for the Littleton Hawks and Colorado Thunderbirds.

Next season, the Centennial native figures to make the jump to junior hockey after signing an NAHL tender earlier this month with the Minnesota Wilderness.

“The opportunity to tender with the Minnesota Wilderness opened up after this past season playing for the Colorado Thunderbirds’ 16U AAA team,” said Nelson. “Brendan Phelps, the associate head coach for the Wilderness, reached out after watching several of my games. He liked the intensity and work ethic in my game. He explained the process and wanted me to skate with his team, tour the facility, and the town of Cloquet, Minn. I was very impressed with the staff and how they ran their practices. After my great experience, I decided to sign the tender offer. 

“The most appealing thing about the Wilderness was the atmosphere in the locker room and on the ice with the players and staff. The organization is run very professionally on and off the ice with tons of support from the staff. I am definitely excited to take the next step in my career to play juniors with older guys and develop on the ice in Cloquet.”

During the 2021-22 season, Nelson had a stellar season on the ice playing for coach Ken Klee.

“This past season was personally my best season yet,” Nelson said. “I put up the most points I have had in a single season (92) and developed extensively under the coaching of Coach Ken. He used his long NHL experience to set a high standard for our team to grow as much as we could in our season, and we finished with 39 wins. Coach Ken did a great job of helping me prepare for the next year by teaching my teammates and I good habits, giving a strong work ethic and doing the little things right. He pushed us hard in every drill and every shift. Each drill and lesson prepared us for competition. The details we worked on every week in practice helped us be stronger in all three zones. Having a routine of specific drills throughout the weeks within the season built solid habits and good foundations for each of us to build on.”

Nelson said he had options for next season, but he knew the NAHL would help him try to reach his dream of playing hockey in college and even further.

“It is definitely appealing that the NAHL has a long history of sending players to the NCAA,” Nelson said. “It has always been my desire to play NCAA Division I hockey. As fortunate as I was to be drafted in the WHL by the Tri-City Americans my Bantam season, I ultimately turned down the offer in hopes of pursuing college hockey. The NAHL has done a great job of moving players on. My goal is to play at the highest level I can, and the NAHL has the capability of pushing players to the NCAA level.”

Starting out in Wilmette, Ill., Nelson and his family moved to Colorado when he was eight and he subsequently joined the Hawks. He then skated for the Thunderbirds’ 11U, 12U and 13U teams before going back home to play 14U and 15U for the Chicago Mission. He then returned this season for his 16U year with the Thunderbirds.

“At every level each year, I was blessed to have my family, coaches and my teammates to push me to the level I am at today and I look forward to junior hockey,” said Nelson.

Going forward, Nelson wants to make an impact in whatever he does.

“My short-term goals are building my body and mind to play at the junior level,” Nelson said. “I want to continue to mentally prepare myself for the exciting time ahead. I hope to make not only a smooth transition but to excel in the league. Long-term goals for hockey are committing to a D-I school, winning an MVP award, and playing in the NHL. All of these goals are achievable, and I look forward to continuing my career in pursuit of these long=term goals.

“One of my long-term goals in life and in school is to pursue aviation. In my time in Chicago at Lyons Township High School, aviation courses were offered as a regular class. My dad is currently a captain for Southwest Airlines, which is one of the leading factors of my interest in aviation. I wish to pursue aviation in college while working to check off my long-term goals in hockey.”

— Matt Mackinder

(April 30, 2022)

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